The Volador cocktail.
Ceviche a la Peruana.
Palmitos (hearts of palm) y queso empanadas.
Arepa de queso with ropa vieja (Cuban pulled pork shoulder).
Sunset in the dining room.
How many times do I pedal my bike up Market Street, just across the street from ~DESTINO~? Weekly. I look over at the restaurant, noting that I haven’t been there in yeeeeears. It’s funny how places can slip off your radar or rotation. In this world of checking restaurants off of lists, always visiting what’s hot and new and where everyone is talking about, sometimes we have to remember to circle back around to those spots we visited and liked long ago. My job is all about trying new restaurants, and I can eat only so many dinners a week, so I was happy to have an assignment for another publication to return to Destino, incidentally one of my very first reviews on tablehopper back in 2006.
The style is billed as Nuevo Latino, but there’s a strong bent toward the Peruvian here (executive chef/owner James Schenk’s mother is Peruvian). Of course you should consider starting with San Francisco’s cocktail, the Pisco Punch (Schenk’s Pisco Latin Lounge next door has done a lot to revive our native cocktail, and has the largest selection of pisco in town). They make a mean Pisco Sour (you have a choice of pisco), but I was a bit taken with my refreshing Volador, with pisco, lime, agave, muddled cilantro, and ginger (cocktails are all $9). So taken that I drank three of them. And let me tell you, it’s not like the old martini/breasts adage (one is not enough, three is too many)—the glass is a bit on the smaller side (especially with ice in it, so go for a non-rocks drink if you want more booze for your buck).
This is not really food you want to eat all to yourself—the menu is really designed to share, so don’t come with people who are all, “I don’t know about you, but I’m getting the salad and the lamb shank.” We started with the ceviche a la Peruana ($9), with red snapper, red onion, cilantro, sweet potato chips, canchas (fried kernels of that honking Peruvian corn that’s on steroids), and a boost of heat from aji amarillo. We followed the server’s suggestion and ordered a side of the plantain chips with serrano-cilantro salsa ($4.50), and everything played very nicely together. Balanced flavors and good textures. No sand throwing. Although I did make a bit of a mess with the chips and salsa. Marcia, keep it on the plantain chip or in the bowl or in your mouth, but not on the table.
And then things took a turn for the dirty. Like … items in the oozing cheese department. Yeah, baby. There are three empanadas to choose from, and we went for the palmitos y queso empanada ($6) with hearts of palm, New York cheddar, Grana Padano, and aji amarillo. The dough (made in house) has the visual texture of a fried wonton, all bubbly and undulating, and is not the pastry-style empanada with the crimped edge I have become a fan of. I didn’t expect it to taste so good—I was like, cheddar? Really? And after my first bite, I was like, okay, they can do whatever they want here. Surrender to the fusion! You get two petite fried bundles, and can opt for the more traditional filling of beef with olives and sultanas, or chicken with queso fresco and Andean black mint.
The arepas de queso are some other mischief-makers in the cheese aisle: they are Venezuelan cornmeal pucks filled with Fontina cheese (perfect marks in the melty department, that cheese) with ropa vieja ($11, Cuban pulled pork shoulder) on top, or there’s a vegetarian version with pineapple ($7.50). The pork was juicy and flavorful (tasted kind of like a really good pozole), rich with notes of citrus and spices. There’s also some pineapple on top, reduced with ginger, bringing a bit of an al pastor vibe to the dish (Schenk says he was inspired by the al pastor stands in Puerto Vallarta) along with some beans mixed in. And when you taste the cornmeal and cheese combo doing a Marinera dance together, you’re in the zone. Hold me.
I have to comment on how appetizing all the food looked. The kitchen does some quality garnish action, and I’m not talking the phone-it-in parsley kind. Pickled onions, microgreens, grated cheese … the food looks pretty and colorful. And the overall flavors pop with acid and chile, plus freshness and seasonality.
How many places mess up octopus? Yeah, a lot. Not here. The pulpo al olivo ($9) featured tender tentacles of grilled octopus that were halved and then presented over savory sliced potatoes, with a purple frothy and light sauce of olive aioli. The featured garnish: dehyrdated pieces of Serrano ham. Gracias. (Sadly this dish has been rotated off the menu for a bit.)
We demolished the churrasco ($12.50), a plate of sliced Angus bavette (one of my preferred cuts of steak) cooked to a perfect pink, and then topped with chimichurri sauce and a perfect amount of finishing salt. For a small plate, it felt like a steal. You can also ante up for the classic (and hearty) lomo saltado dish ($21), but we were sticking with the tapas mode.
The menu is super accommodating—you could be a double date, a large birthday party, a couple, whatever, and you will be able to size your meal accordingly. The prices felt really fair for the amount of food we got, if not generous. And the ingredients are good, with organic items featured prominently. And vegetarians will eat heartily here.
Dang, dessert ended on a thud: the chocolate rum tres leches cake ($7). It looked like it was teleported from 1987, with a squiggle of chocolate sauce on the plate, raspberries, and the requisite sprig of mint, the works. And it was mushy and sweet. The Debbie Gibson of dessert. The real star is the alfajores ($12), a fave of mine. You get a packet of 12 butter sandwich cookies with a dulce de leche filling; and score, you should hopefully have enough to bring home as well. Unless you horked them all at the table.
So, as of 2011, the restaurant is 11 years old. It kind of shows. The textured walls feel dated, the menu and check presenters are a little tired, the décor isn’t very au courant. Some things need a bit of a dusting. But it’s comfortable and easygoing, with rich colors, and when the evening light through the stained glass spills into the room, it creates a warm atmosphere. I will credit the restaurant with updating the menu—even though some standards remain, many new dishes get rotated in. And they just added a communal table in the front that seats eight, and there’s a two-top as well.
While I felt like our server was initially just going through the motions with us (hello, customers, I have waited on hundreds of you people), she made a very nice gesture at the end of our meal, seeing we were disappointed with our dessert and didn’t finish it like every other plate we had (cough). We were getting up from the table and she invited us to have a drink on her in the neighboring Pisco Latin Lounge to make up for the clunker dessert. Those are the touches that make a difference, and keep me returning to places—I just won’t let it be another five years this time.